In Borno State, one of Nigeria’s most conflicted states in the Northeast, few would be celebrating the anniversary of the first outbreak of violence by the Boko Haram fighters whose trail of heartbreak and tragedy weave through the region’s many small towns.
It might have seemed foolhardy for a small village to take on the Boko Haram fighters with knives and hunting guns. But two weeks ago, villagers of the Nganzai area attempted just that. Some 11 Boko Haram fighters reportedly died in the scuffle and 10 AK-47 rifles were captured.
“These people have been stealing from us so we decided to come together because we could no longer wait for an eternity for soldiers to defend us,” said Aji Gaji Mallam, who said he lost four brothers in previous attacks.
But it wasn’t long before Boko Haram fighters came on a reprisal mission in the form of armed men on motorbikes who, witnesses said, roared into the area and attacked a funeral procession, killing at least 65 people, many of them mourners.
In a region devastated by violence, displacement, climate change and the resulting widespread malnutrition, the insurgency has led to tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of about two million people.
Yet Nigeria’s government and military claim repeatedly that Boko Haram is being subdued, even on the brink of defeat, its hiding places decimated. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said he received assurances from the armed forces that the terrorists who committed these killings “will pay a big price for their action”.
“This administration is determined to end the menace of terrorism,” the president said in the statement issued by his spokesman Garba Shehu.
Human rights groups, aid organizations and local Nigerians have long disputed such claims, and attacks have persisted.
“People like us who have been operating in the field, we know that what the government is saying is far from the true reality on the ground,” said Ms. Hamsatu Allamin, a human rights advocate who has worked with foreign aid groups.
Meanwhile, spokesman Shehu acknowledged the difficulties faced by Nigeria’s military to defeat Boko Haram. “The honest truth is lack of capacity,” he said.
“I’m not saying a lack of fighting capacity, but lack of capacity In terms of personnel, equipment, in terms of mobility access to react quickly,” he added.
“The Nigerian army, air force and the navy are all evolved in this operation; they are thinly spread on the ground. We do not have enough boots on the ground to pull that area.”